In March 2016 the Special Needs Week team sent questionnaires to SENCos in every primary school across the UK, inviting comments on the provision of special needs within their schools.
In this report we look at the replies from primary school SENCos and the implications of these answers.
Over half the primary school SENCos who answered our questionnaire have three or more teachers who are involved exclusively or primarily with special needs. Over a quarter of the schools reported having six or more such members of staff – clearly reflecting both the growth in the size of primary schools and the growth in the awareness of special needs in recent years.
It is interesting to note that just over a quarter of the schools that participated in our questionnaire had under 200 pupils while at the other extreme 5% of the schools replying had over 700 pupils.
18% of schools reported that they had no one in the school who worked full time primarily in special needs. These were, for the most part, small schools.
In one part of the survey we focussed particularly on 10 special needs: ADHD, Autism, Diabetes, Down’s syndrome, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Mental health issues and Self-harm.
The most frequently reported special need from this list was autism. The next most common was dyslexia, followed by mental health issues. Only 1% of respondents said they had no pupils with dyslexia and none with mental health issues. 3% said they had no pupils with autism.
Our figures also suggested that in some cases the number of pupils with a specific need might be under-reported quite possibly because of a lack of funding to allow proper diagnosis and support.
As an example, it is estimated and generally accepted that around 4% of the population suffer severely from dyslexia. However the number suffering from dyslexia overall (that is not severe dyslexia, but still dyslexia) is normally put at around 10% - and all these people need help if they are going to reach their potential in academic work.
It is generally accepted that the research figures suggest that there are something in excess of 160,000 children in primary schools who suffer from severe dyslexia and maybe 400,000 in total who have dyslexia.
Extrapolating from our own survey we estimate a figure of 144,000 pupils across the UK being recognised and supported in primary schools for having dyslexia.
These two numbers (144,000 and 160,000) are remarkably close considering they come from two totally different sources. But the key point that we must remember is that we are looking here at the number with severe dyslexia - there are perhaps another 250,000 who are dyslexic who are not being supported.
This suggests that schools are simply not getting the resources they need to help the majority of pupils who have dyslexia.
Now if we turn by way of comparison to dyscalculia (a reasonable comparison since dyscalculia is considered a similar sort of issue to dyslexia, only in relation to maths) we find a very interesting set of numbers.
The general belief is that dyscalculia is as widespread in the population at large as dyslexia, and yet only 2.3 children per school on average were identified on our survey as having dyscalculia.
This would equate to 56,000 across the UK - around one third of the number of children seen with severe dyslexia.
Thus it would seem likely that schools are not only under-diagnosing some special needs, but also that some special needs (in our example dyscalculia) are being recognised far less readily than others.
This is, of course, hardly the fault of SENCOs who are now being expected to recognise and cope with around 60 different special needs among pupils in primary schools. Rather it seems to be entirely an issue of resources.
Such a view is supported in our survey as in addition to focussing on ten special needs in detail we also asked special needs teachers to consider a much wider list of 67 special needs. We asked them to let us know if they felt they had any pupils who had a condition and for whom they did not have adequate resources to help this pupil.
In 57 of the 67 categories the answers of the special needs teachers who completed the survey was “yes” for at least one pupil in at least one school.
Indeed the only categories for which no teachers reported that they had pupils whom they could not help were those medical conditions which would normally be treated by hospitals and GPs. (We included these in our survey as a checking mechanism and out of interest.)
The research suggests that in the average primary school SENCos are aware of eight separate special needs that at least one child they teach suffers from, and for which they do not have adequate resources to do their job.
For clarity we should stress that this is not in relation to eight pupils, but eight separate special needs areas per school.
The most common areas for such difficulty were
● Attachment disorder (66% of schools)
● Behavioural emotional and social difficulties (53% of schools)
● Anxiety disorder (40% of schools)
● Mental health issues (38% of schools).
What is also noticeable from this list is that even in areas such as dyslexia where there is a wide variety of materials available for supporting children who suffer from the special need, there were schools that felt they did not have the resources to help the children.
This suggests that there is once again a simple issue of funding for physical resources or availability of staff to work with the children even in the most common and widely recognised areas, rather than a lack of availability of resources and information.
In terms of relationships with the rest of the school, 77% of respondents felt that all or most colleagues were understanding and co-operative with the way the special needs team worked. However 23% of respondents indicated that “there are unfortunately some colleagues in the school who “lack some understanding about my work and/or are not as understanding as I would wish.”
This suggests that in around a quarter of primary schools there is still a need for further education of teaching colleagues on the issue of special needs and how it affects children.
Our final question related to the time demands placed upon special needs staff. In relation to this nearly two thirds of respondents said that it now seems that every term there are more demands but not nearly enough extra resources or staff provided to cope with these demands.
Nearly one third said the demands were growing, and that although resources were growing too, demand was outstripping the ability to meet the special needs they were faced with.
Only 5% of respondents said that while demands were growing the school was gaining resources and/or staff to match.
Not one respondent suggested that the situation in terms of the demands upon the special needs department was stable.
General background on the conduct of the survey.
Our survey was carried out in March 2016 by sending emails with a link to the questionnaire to primary school SENCos across the UK, and as with all surveys conducted in this way we must be careful in our interpretation of the figures. We did not seek to balance the schools that took part in terms of their size, their funding, or their location, and therefore there could be some bias in the answers - although we have no indication that any of these factors does actually bias responses. Likewise we appreciate that in some schools such emails may be blocked before reaching the teacher, or may not be opened by the teacher, but we have no indication that this issue is more prevalent in one type of school than another. Also, we were very keen not to put too onerous a burden on the SENCos who wanted to answer our questions, and thus the survey was deliberately kept as short as possible. As indicated in the report we did include a few check questions, to make sure that questions were being understood and not being answered randomly, but even so this survey should be taken as an indicator of the state of affairs, not as a definitive statement on the number of children suffering from special needs or on the way schools are handling the issue.
For clarification it should also be added that in our project we followed the view of the governments of all parts of the UK that having English as a second language was not a special need. Overall our aim is to raise awareness of what seems to us to be important issues, and we do hope a university or other body with the funding and expertise to do so will explore these points further.